A Short-Story Vending Machine, Dispensing Free Stimulation

On a recent Tuesday evening at Cafe Zoetrope in San Francisco's green, triangle-shaped Sentinel building, Cousin Phun approached the new short-story vending machine hiding in plain sight near the crowded bar. She deliberated between three shiny silver buttons numbered one, three, or five.  Eventually, she pushed five. Within seconds, the machine spat out a long, narrow scroll printed with "Escape in Two Phases" by Zann; an original story that would take Phun approximately five minutes to read.

The Short Edition vending machine is already popular in France, where Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola initially encountered the novel concept. The machine prints original stories on demand, of various length, depending on how much time the user wants to spend reading. Intrigued, Coppola ordered a model for his Cafe Zoetrope, in San Francisco's North Beach. Installed on May 10, it's the first of its kind in the United States.

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“This intriguing short story machine gives us a great opportunity to merge the innovation of today’s world with the nostalgic allure of classic manuscripts,” said Coppola in a statement.

Cousin Phun, already a huge fan of short stories by the likes of Alice Munro, Ray Bradbury and Franz Kafka, read through the story as she sipped on a cocktail. The scene seemed archaic: a woman frozen in concentration, in the middle of a buzzing crowd, reading from a line of print instead of scrolling through Instagram, as one might do normally do while sitting solo at a bar.

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So what was the verdict?

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"The story was labeled as humor, but it wasn't humorous to me," Phun said. "It was a little sad, but it was well-crafted."

But what of the vending machine concept itself? "I love it," she said. "What's not to love? For one, it's free. I'd pay a quarter or even a dollar for this, but it's free. Second, anything to get your eyes of a screen is a good thing. There is always a difference between that and the written word."

Later that evening, one young man expressed disappointment about the machine's aesthetics: glossy, cylindrical, modern. He'd imagined it would more closely resemble an old-fashioned fortune telling apparatus.

"Like the one in Big," he said, referring to that movie's mysterious 'Zoltar Says Make Your Wish' machine.

Yet despite their subdued exterior, the machines have been a big hit in France. The city of Grenoble, where Short Edition is headquartered, has eight machines installed at places like the city center, library, and tourism office. They've emerged as somewhat of a phenomenon.

Manjula Martin is the new managing editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, the lauded fiction magazine which recently won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Fiction for Anthony Marra's The Grozny Tourist Bureau. Martin and longtime editor Michael Ray are in charge of the care and feeding of the Short Edition; they'll see to it that the little machine is stocked with stories.

"The idea of making storytelling and literature just a part of the landscape is kind of lovely," Martin said.

Photo by Cousin Phun
Photo by Cousin Phun

For now, Short Edition supplies the machine's stories, all of them translated from French by an apparently hard-working translator named Wendy Cross. As they get going, according to Martin, the bulk of the stories will come from Zoetrope's Virtual Studio flash fiction community, which offers free critique and support for apprentice writers. Upon group vote, the top-rated pieces will make it into the vending machine. Others will come from Vendetta, Coppola's wine and story project. Eventually, they'll partner with local literary organizations for special theme months.

It's an exciting proposition: imagine local writers trekking to Cafe Zoetrope to see their story emerge from the machine, not to mention the random strangers who might discover those writers after pushing a button out of sheer curiosity.

"People have been incredibly enthusiastic about it," said Martin. A launch party earlier this month drew the likes of former Mayor Willie Brown, Dave Eggers, and Vendela Vida, who showed up to welcome San Francisco's literary Number Five.

Francis Ford Coppola, never one to step down from a challenge, hopes to see the machines' presence multiply.

"I'd like to see the city of San Francisco put them everywhere," he stated, "so that while waiting for a bus, or marriage license, or lunch, you could get an artistic lift free of charge."

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